The Most Successful Independent Film Directors

Movie buffs can talk all day about how much money The Avengers or The Dark Knight made at the box office or who’s the best blockbuster director of all time cough Christopher Nolan cough, but making a

Movie buffs can talk all day about how much money The Avengers or The Dark Knight made at the box office or who’s the best blockbuster director of all time cough Christopher Nolan cough, but making a lot of money off a movie produced and distributed through a major studio that funnels millions into advertising alone isn’t quite as impressive as one made on a low budget or forced to distribute through a mob front (as the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre very likely was). After all, most people enjoy an underdog story. Here are a few of the most successful directors who got their start outside the system and still tend to stay on its fringes to this day.

9 Kevin Smith: Net worth $25 million

The creator and portrayer of Silent Bob, counterpart of his more verbal associate Jay, didn’t require any sets in his directorial debut, Clerks: he merely set it in the conjoined convenience and video rental stores he was working at during the early ’90s. Casting local actors, friends and even his own mother and sister, Smith turned his first movie into a truly homegrown affair. Although the writer-director has since made films for Universal and Warner Bros., the majority of his filmography consists of independent productions, with his most recent movie, Red State, having been financed by private investors and distributed through his own company, SModcast Pictures.

8 George A. Romero: Net worth $35 million

George A. Romero, the creator and undisputed king of the zombie movie has worked outside of Hollywood for close to his entire career. Excepting Creepshow and Land of the Dead, which were distributed by Warner Bros. and Universal, respectively, Romero’s films have been produced and vended independently, with several companies such as The Walter Reade Organization and Orion Pictures having gone bankrupt since (though Orion resurfaced in the realm of television production last year). Most of Romero’s filmography has been filmed and/or set in his native Pennsylvania and current home of Toronto, and in recent years he has moved to making even smaller pictures in the form of found footage zombie movies Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead.

7 John Waters: Net worth $38 million

The average person might know John Waters from his original version of Hairspray, his role as the campy store owner on The Simpsons, or simply for his trademark pencil mustache, but everyone’s favourite Baltimorean has a long and, well, storied history in independent film. Since his start as a director, 1964’s Hag in a Black Leather Jacket, Waters has consistently pushed the boundaries of good taste (or circumvented them altogether) with movies such as Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living and Polyester, all of which were made through his personal company, Dreamland Productions, and distributed through then-independent studio New Line Cinema. While the rate at which he makes films has dropped off in recent years, make no mistake: at 67, Waters is no less transgressive than he was at 27, and still as committed to doing things on his own terms.

6 Roger Corman: Net worth: $40 million

There’s a good chance younger readers might not have heard of Roger Corman, unless they frequent SyFy and ironically enjoy its Corman-produced ultra-low-budget monster movies like Sharktopus and Piranhaconda. But Corman actually has one of the most extensive resumes in cinematic history, having directed 55 films and produced at least 385, almost all of them through his own independent production company, New World Pictures. Granted, most of these were as equally, if not more, low-budget than the ones he’s produced for SyFy, but their casts included such names as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and even then-newcomers Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. Furthermore, countless directors have gotten their start or at least some form of tutelage under Corman’s wing, among them Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme. Cameron has even said that he “trained at the Roger Corman Film School.” So the next time you find yourself laughing at Dinoshark, by all means, keep on laughing, but remember that behind it is one of the most influential men in Hollywood.

5 Terry Gilliam: Net worth $40 million

Animator and former Python Terry Gilliam has been working independently since Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which was produced through the troupe’s own Python (Monty) Pictures and distributed by EMI’s brief motion picture division. It’s understandable that Gilliam would prefer to stick to smaller vendors after Universal altered the ending to his dystopian thriller Brazil. Working independently hasn’t always been successful for him: his attempted adaptation of Don Quixote was in development Hell for years before it eventually collapsed due to lack of funding among other issues (though he recently announced on Facebook that the production might start again this year). When he has prospered, however, Gilliam has been able to execute his undeniably idiosyncratic vision unhindered with films like Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and 2013’s The Zero Theorem.

4 Steven Soderbergh: Net worth $40 million

It seems odd to place the director of the Warner Bros.-produced, commercially successful Ocean’s Eleven trilogy—not to mention Magic Mike and Contagion—among the others named on this list, but at times it seems Steven Soderbergh takes on larger, blockbuster projects as a means of financing the smaller or lesser-known films he makes just as frequently. These pictures include the two-part historical epic Che, psychological thriller Side Effects, as well as And Everything is Going Fine, a documentary about experimental monologuist Spalding Gray.

3 Gus Van Sant: Net worth $45 million

Louisville native Gus Van Sant rose to fame in 1997 with the indie box office smash Good Will Hunting, based on the screenplay by stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But apart from his divisive shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and literary drama Finding Forrester, Van Sant has stuck mainly to smaller films, returning to his arthouse roots especially in the last decade with the controversial Elephant, the Kurt Cobain-inspired Last Days and the Oscar-nominated Milk.

2 (tie) Joel and Ethan Coen: Net worth $80 million (combined)

It’s true the Minneapolis-born brothers have worked within the studio system at several points during their shared career, but the darkly comic caper Fargo and the Best Picture-winning, narratively unconventional No Country for Old Men likely wouldn’t have been produced through a major studio. The brothers got their start collaborating with friend and future Spider-Man trilogy director Sam Raimi, with Joel working as an assistant editor on B-movie classic The Evil Dead and both contributing to the screenplay of Raimi’s later Crimewave. Though they’ve dabbled in larger, mainstream productions like the George Clooney/Catherine Zeta-Jones romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty, sprinkled throughout are the existential Barton Fink and retro neo-noire thriller The Man Who Wasn’t There. 2009’s A Serious Man and last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis also maintain the brothers’ indie heritage.

1 Quentin Tarantino: Net worth $90 million

While Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, made in excess of $425 million at the box office, the writer-director, known for his use of natural dialogue and ultra-violence, has worked independently of the major studios for most of his career. In fact, outside of his brief time at an acting school, Tarantino has had little in the way of formal film training. The vast majority of his cinematic knowledge comes from his tenure as a video store clerk in Manhattan Beach, California, conversing with customers as well as co-worker and future Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary about film history and techniques. In his words, “When people ask me if I went to film school, I tell them, ‘No, I went to films’.” Tarantino became involved in the film industry after meeting producer Lawrence Bender, who suggested he write a screenplay of his own. The result, My Best Friend’s Birthday, was for all intents and purposes his education as a director. With the exception of Reservoir Dogs and his “Death Proof” section of Grindhouse, all of Tarantino’s subsequent films have been produced through his personal studio A Band Apart and distributed through smaller vendors such as Miramax and The Weinstein Company.

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The Most Successful Independent Film Directors